Why the sense of the faithful is necessary

Many responders to my recent article on the sense of the faithful ("Who made the decisions for the church through the years?", Oct. 24) provided especially thoughtful comments, expanding on the idea and showing how this sense is meant to complement teaching authority rather than deny it. Here are two excerpts that deserve consideration.

Writer "3-gen Catholic" presents comments "as a faithful member who recognizes the support and need of an international faith community with a legitimized teaching authority. Historically we would not even be having a serious discussion over dissent if this institution had not managed over the centuries to preserve for us the significance and impact of the Jesus event. However, the full legitimacy of its teaching authority needs to be tested over time against its call to preach Jesus' message to the humanity it was intended for."

Official church pronouncements, says "3-gen Catholic," come with a high rating of "certainty" and a demand for acceptance as the true "way" to salvation. But "it is important ... to keep in context, that 'the way' was offered by one man, Jesus, to mankind 2000 years ago in a very obscure moment of history and corner of the world well hidden from the main cultural and political movements of the time. And the first authentic documents canonized to teach the 'way' were written down some 25 to 40 years later in different parts of the then known world and with varied emphases in their messages. Modern scholarship has unearthed a considerable body of knowledge and new insights about that obscure cultural and religious milieu into which the Church was born."

The church "that has to get it right with God," 3-gen reminds us, "is the whole mystical body of Christ and not only the leadership (read hierarchy). When we legitimately dissent, we have to trust in the Father with an awareness of our human limitations, different for each one of us. ... An environment of questioning, or when demanded, dissent, accompanied in peace and a humble trust in God ... with a critical awareness of what science and pertinent knowledge teaches us, will help us get it right."

A second writer, "dennism," makes an interesting distinction between "teaching authority" and "teaching charism." Says dennism: "'Teaching authority' implies a right, a function that is rooted in might, irrespective of validity, fact, reason, consultation, reflection, or purity in motive." In other words, it is demanding and blunt and tyrannical. "Teaching charism, on the other hand, participates in authority," declares dennism, "is authorized/mandated by the custodian of learning, is disciplined by the tradition and scholarship, fearless of the wider body of knowledge [including] stand-alone secular, science, common sense and consensus of opinion. It is motivated by the faith that all things come together in Christ, regardless of, in spite of the challenges -- rather than diminishing the challenges by denying or rejecting them."

In stressing the absolute demand of its authority, the teacher "devalues the nature of learning, the sense of the faithful and human maturation in faith in favor of virtual idolatry," the writer concludes.

What both responders are getting at, I think, is the danger of "ecclesiolatry," that is worshipping the institution rather than God. The sense of the faithful stands as a necessary barrier and caution against this dangerous, yet pervasive temptation.

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